But What Kind of WPA Am I?

By Melissa Ianetta, University of Delaware

Scene: MLA Convention, New Orleans, 2002.

A PhD candidate is interviewing for an Assistant Professor/WPA position at large state university in the west. The conversation, which thus far has examined her teaching and research, has been both genial and animated—which the intrepid job seeker takes as a good sign. The search chair then moves the discussion to the WPA portion of the job.

“Could you tell me a bit about how you would work as a WPA?” he asks, resettling himself in his chair and looking the candidate in the eye.

“Certainly,” she responds. “I think a WPA functions best when her leadership grows from and responds to the local context in which she works. So for my first year, I would want to talk with the various stakeholders—the department, the part-time instructors, graduate students currently teaching in the program and, possibly, institutional leadership—to get a sense of shared goals and mutual areas of concern. From there, I would want to work collaboratively to develop a plan that would allow us to move forward over the six years of my initial term as WPA.”

As she finishes the question, she looks to the committee expectantly, anticipating the kind of interesting, lively exchange that has characterized the interview thus far. Much to her surprise, her answer is greeted with an awkward silence.

She does not get an on-campus interview.

It probably doesn’t take strong deductive skills to figure out that, eleven years ago, I was the intrepid interviewee from the above vignette. Deduction, however, won’t lead to the name of the school since, alas, this exchange was typical of several interviews I had that year. At the time, this reaction left me confounded: What was wrong with my answer? It was honest, after all. And it showed that I knew I couldn’t just lift the model of my graduate institutional and drop it down into my new employer. It showed I was a Good Listener, for goodness’ sake. So what was wrong?

In this posting, I respond to T.A.-me by taking a look at a common misstep on the WPA/Assistant Professor interviews. As I’ll describe below, I see my interview story as emblematic of what often goes wrong at both the conference and the campus stage of this search process. Admittedly, my comments are based on anecdotal evidence: my experiences as a candidate and search chair, my friends’ job market experiences as well as stories and strategies from recent graduate students I’ve seen successfully negotiate the process. As this argument is thus based on a localized set of stories, mileage may vary—I'm not suggesting everyone (or anyone!) take my advice, but I would advise mulling it, at least.

From Here to There: Mind the Gap

My MLA experiences described above illustrate what I think of as the hardest thing about interviewing to be a WPA while still at your graduate institution: the gap between what you have done and what you will be expected to do. Generally, English department graduate students have research and teaching experiences that closely model what they will do as faculty. They design courses, teach, revise and teach them again, for example, and they develop and submit their research for review. By contrast, the work of graduate student WPAs is often more removed from the work they will accomplish as faculty. Many graduate students WPAs, for example, might have input into curriculum development, assessment planning and staffing decisions, but ultimately the responsibility for these decisions will reside with the faculty WPAs with whom they work. Rather than articulating experience with this kind of work, the typical graduate student administrative vita I have seen as a search chair (and offered myself as a graduate student), emphasizes mentoring, committee service and instructor development. This is as it should be: in most institutional landscapes, a graduate student should not be the one to deal with the legal dimension of personnel matters, tense negotiations with balky senior administrators, or day-to-day departmental political quagmires. And yet, these are a very real part of the job of the WPA. So there’s a necessary disconnect, then, between what one has done and what one will do, making it difficult to predict precisely one’s WPA identity for questioning search committees. And yet, as I read an application for a junior hire WPA, I am reading to find out, among other things, who is this person as an administrator—and this is particularly hard to do when the applicant only has a year or two of administrative experience to document their professional performance.

Exacerbating this gap between the requirements of one’s past and future roles are the inevitable disconnects between the applicant’s home school and the search committee’s institution. Graduate students tend to have WPA experience at large research institutions, but most jobs are at other kinds of schools: regional state schools, liberal arts colleges, private MA granting institutions and the like. And, even if an applicant holds a BA and/or an MA from another institutional category and so has experience in an institution beyond the research school, institutional groupings are haphazard at best. The WPA graduate with a liberal arts college BA, for example, might be surprised to see how wide is the range of schools that assume this designation: there are the highly selective liberal arts colleges, of course, but there are also several tiers of less selective liberal arts colleges which may have pre-professional and online programs; within this broad variety of institutions, there are then those liberal arts colleges with still active—but different in both kind and extent—affiliations to their founding denominations; and, finally, there are the public liberal arts colleges found within many state systems of higher education. Each of these subgroupings might embrace the designation “Liberal Arts College,” yet each subcategory represents a very particular set of opportunities and challenges. How, then, is the applicant to project themselves into a range of futures and predict how they will act as a WPA in each?

To Get a Job, Risk Losing a Job

My first proposal is that, in order to get a job, one has to risk not getting a job. My administrative spiel as a TA was heartfelt, honest—and utterly innocuous. It didn’t tell the committee who I was, what my professional commitments were, or how I was different from any of the other candidates they had spoken with. I’m sure most other applicants were similarly committed to collaborative, leadership, listening to stakeholders, working for buy-in among constituents, yaddah yaddah yaddah. All of this is true and good practice, but how can a committee choose among remarkably similar candidates? So I’d advise job seekers to think about the administrative experiences and commitments that define who they are.

Take, for example, another interview I had, the same year as the one that opens this posting. It was an interview I was surprised to receive, for it was a writing center director job, and while I had worked in multiple writing centers, I had only worked as a WPA in the composition program. So I walked into the interview thinking I was unlikely to advance beyond the first round. Accordingly, I was calm and very clear about my supposed commitments as a writing center director. I talked about the need for a writing center to have a presence beyond the English department, although this one did not have such a presence. I talked about the need for peer tutors, which this center did not have. And finally, in response to a question about “What is a bad use of technology in the writing center?” I responded “Turnitin.com and microwave popcorn. I can’t stand a writing center that smells like microwave popcorn, particularly burned microwave popcorn.” I left that interview knowing I was either at the top of their list or that they were thanking God I was gone. And, yes, that was my first job.

I tell this story not to suggest that candidates be needlessly provocative or even a whit more sassy. But I do think that, in addition to researching carefully the schools to which one applies, it is equally important to research one’s self. What would, honestly, be the deal breakers for you as a WPA? Under what circumstances would you just rather not have the job? Or, more optimistically, what would distinguish you? In addition to asking yourself these questions, ask too the people you’ve worked with, including faculty, other graduate student WPAs with whom you’ve collaborated and teachers you’ve mentored. Their answers, like your own, might surprise you.

Know Your Audience…Ask Your Audience

Every job market guru suggests researching a school before interviewing, but for the WPA-aspirant, this advice is particularly true. Job seekers in other fields might be focusing in on the interviewing department, with perhaps a quick glance to the institution’s mission statement or to the page for the Provost or Dean who will be part of the interviewing process. The WPA job candidate, however, should be looking at the pages of Institutional Research—a rich mine of information at many places—as well as the pages for any allied programs (writing center, first-year experience, WAC, professional programs, etc.). You’ll want to show you not only can find the information that they make available but that you can do something with it. So draw upon it in your conversations. When you do so, you might be surprised what faculty DON’T know about their institution—and how pleased they are that you DO know this stuff.

Finally, I’d note that, if you want to be seen as a good listener, listen. The scenario with which I opened might have gone much differently, perhaps, if somewhere in my description of my excellent listening skills, I had, well, listened. In my later job searches, I’ve found it effective to state one or two principles of my administrative philosophy and then ask, “I’m wondering how that might work in your culture.” Or, when asked a question I find puzzling (such as “How do you teach students the difference between its and it’s?”), I ask questions back (such as “Is that one of the biggest problems you see with your students’ writing? What are some of the other trends you see?”). Such questions show how you negotiate with the agendas of others and, hopefully, give you more meaningful material for your response.

I think this is actually far more than anyone needs to hear from me on the job market. So I’m going to stop now. Just remember: Research. Listen. Answer thoughtfully and diplomatically. Hmm…maybe it’s not so different from what you’ve been doing, after all!

Comments

My small addition to Melissa’s excellent advice comes in the form of two words. I started whispering these words to myself as a mantra near the end of my time on the job market last year: Be bold.

An example: I was giving a teaching demo about this time last year. During the Q&A with faculty at the end, I stopped just shy of suggesting a major shift in how the comp program trained instructors to evaluate student writing. And because I didn’t quite make that point, because I wasn’t bold, I lost that job right then. An attentive faculty member even asked me, point blank, what change in teacher training I would make. He was doing me a favor. But, determined not to offend anyone who had invested time and energy into the old (and not-so-great) model, I stayed the vague, non-committal course, apparently just to make sure I really lost that job. In my memory, I lost that job twice. In five minutes. That must be some kind of record.

In interviews and campus visits, I wanted to be whatever WPA search committees wanted me to be. After all, I wanted a job. Like most job seekers, I had a LOT riding on my search. But I wasn’t actually giving those committees what they wanted—at least not till my last two campus visits. They wanted me to be bold in my assertions, to give explicit examples of the kinds of changes they could expect with me at the helm. As most of us know, WPAs make lots of decisions. So when you’re interviewing for a position, be bold and make those decisions. This at least demonstrates that you can do so.

If the committee doesn’t want the kind of WPA you are, then you really don’t want that job. But you give yourself the best shot just by remembering to be bold

Melissa's excellent post led me to think about my own job search and first year on the job. I'm the WPA at a small community college, where I've quite happily worked for the past 14 years. But the first "official" conversation I had with my dean post-hiring was quite a surprise.

After congratulating me on getting hired, he asked me what my priorities were going to be. Acting on the advice of one of my graduate-school mentors, I responded similarly to how Melissa did in her anecdote: I said I'd spend the first year getting to know the school, the program, the faculty and students, etc.--a lot of listening. My dean looked bemused as he digested what I'd said. Then he replied, "But Mark, we hired you to DO something."

The summer before I officially started, I had to design a computer-equipped writing classroom. (Contractors were already on campus. The budget was set and an architect had been retained. There was no option to wait.) In that meeting with the dean, I was told that I needed to pilot an assessment program my first semester on the job, which entailed not only recruiting faculty members to participate but...well...actually designing the program. The WPA position was a new one BECAUSE the college had realized they needed someone to do these and other tasks. I did my best, and although I made many mistakes, things have worked out well over the years--especially with lots of tweaking. (As a writing teacher, I'm comfortable with revision!)

Here's my point: often, schools hire a WPA because things need to get done in the writing program. In an interview, you don't want to come off as the type of person who will bulldoze over all opposition or completely upend the department. But you also need to give a clear sense of what you value, how you will decide your priorities, and how you will get things done. It's true that being honest about all of this might mean that you don't get the job. But be aware that once you do get a job as a WPA, you will have to act, sometimes quicker than you would ideally like. Having a clear sense of your core principles--both to relay to a committee and to guide your own actions--can help.

I really enjoyed reading Melissa's blog entry, as well as Jacob's response. This discussion is even more timely, I think, given the recent iteration of conversations on the WPA-L listserv about the contextual nature of taking on a WPA position pre-tenure. Thankfully, I think the admonishment to always turn away from those jobs is dying a quicker death, and, posts like Melissa's help us take a more productive look at how those of us who are interested in those opportunities can make smart, well-informed decisions which match our values, commitments, and career priorities.

Some of the advice given here by Melissa and Jacob might feel scary to take––“be bold” and embrace the idea that “in order to get a job, one has to risk not getting a job.” I can imagine someone wanting to take a more conservative approach for any number of reasons, but my experience having been on many, many search committees and having gotten tenure after taking on WPA responsibilities at my university tells me that being honest with yourself and your potential future colleagues about your values and commitments is the best way to find a good fit for everyone. I like Melissa’s advice to float a few ideas with a search committee and then engage them in a conversation about how those ideas might play out at that particular institution. This is one of the easiest ways to help search committee members begin to see who you are not only as a WPA, but as a colleague. All of this is a sign of professional maturity, which, in my experience, does make you stand out from the crowd, even of similarly prepared candidates.

As some of you might know, the desire to learn more about WPA identity has been at the heart of my work since I first began my PhD program at Purdue, where I took the four-course secondary area in writing program administration. I was determined to commit myself to WPA scholarship as well as the every day work of being a WPA, and because of my experience in graduate school, I am a strong advocate of graduate preparation, including coursework, in WPA studies. Melissa rightly points out that it’s hard to imagine how you can reasonably prepare for the wealth of job and institutional types that are advertised each year, and harder still to imagine what it might mean to be a WPA at each. However, I would like to argue that the study of WPA, and WPA coursework, in particular, can go a long way towards helping WPA-interested graduate students get a better sense of what WPA identity can look like played out in a variety of ways. Shirley Rose, Linda Adler-Kassner, and Chris Anson, just to name a few, ask their students to shadow current WPAs and do research that leads to writing WPA profiles, which get shared among the students so that all get some exposure to WPA life from a variety of perspectives and contexts.

You can also learn more than you might think from reading the scholarship about, and, increasingly the theorizing, of writing program administration (like Strickland’s and Gunner’s The Writing Program Interrupted, Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious, and Charlton et al’s GenAdmin,). When my co-authors and I wrote GenAdmin, we knew that the increasing numbers of graduate students choosing to study writing program administration and actively pursuing WPA jobs because that’s how they identify professionally, would change writing program administration as a field in significant ways. I’m really excited to see the conversation about that continue here.

I appreciate very much the advice provided here—Melissa’s, Jacob’s, Mark’s, and Jonnika’s—and I think it perfect advice for a recent graduate with WPA-related coursework on her transcript and/or gWPA experience on his cv. But my experience was entirely different; as a grad student I had neither of these. In fact, being a WPA wasn’t a real possibility in my world until the year I went up for tenure. However, after 5 years as a WPA and now being in the position to hire a new WPA for my campus, I think Melissa’s advice resonates strongly when she says:

--Every job market guru suggests researching a school before interviewing, but for the WPA-aspirant, this advice is particularly true.--

What does this mean, specifically? In addition to Melissa’s good advice, I’d say this: try to get a solid understanding of what the program has been up to recently. Has it had one WPA for 12 years? Or several over the last 5? Or (gasp!) no WPA? Does it appear to be a coherent program or one with a mushy middle? Has anyone published or presented about the program’s identity or work? What does their website indicate about TA preparation, full-time and part-time instructors, evaluation and assessment, delivery, multimodal projects, their student population, student publications, and so on? In other words, know as much as possible the rhetorical context you are entering into. *Who* is your audience and *what* is their purpose for having you there? Having a good sense of these various aspects will help you determine exactly how bold, or not, to be with your responses to their questions.

Finally, while the advice that

--Every job market guru suggests researching a school before interviewing, but for the WPA-aspirant, this advice is particularly true--

may well get you the job, you also want to keep it. Therefore, before you leave the campus, you need to pose the big question about expectations for tenure. Being a WPA is fun and rewarding work, but, just like teaching, it will take up as much time and space as you allow it. On the plane ride home, then, spend some time seriously considering not only if you like the faculty or if the geographical location suits you. Also consider if this institution’s expectations for tenure are reasonable alongside their expectations for your work as a WPA. While many of us WPA-types think we can conquer the world (and come pretty darn close), being aware of those expectations, in my opinion, is the most important thing to find out about a school.

When I was on the job market, a committee asked me to talk about what research I had planned, so I described a book project. "Anything else?" one of my interlocutors asked, so I described a few articles I had in the works. "Anything else?" he asked again. I paused, then said "Well, this morning, I thought that a great title for an essay would be 'Arm Wrestling Peter Elbow.'" Once the committee stopped laughing, I added, "The first sentence would be 'It's harder than you might think.'"

I got that job, too.